Wednesday 21 March 2018

Arts: Tragedy of the ripple effect

Community spirit: Frank Berry was inspired by a newspaper article to make a feature film about suicide
Community spirit: Frank Berry was inspired by a newspaper article to make a feature film about suicide
Bryan Murray

Sophie Gorman

'Suicide cluster' is a relatively new phrase to describe a horrifically tragic actuality. In 2011, it was reported that five suicide clusters occurred across Ireland in less than two years, including a group of 17 young and adolescent men in one area who took their own lives within 18 months of each other. In West Cork, in a three-month period, there were 13 deaths, a suicide every week. The ripple effect of these tragedies will be forever felt. But how do we talk about them? How can we get the people most vulnerable to them to open up?

I Used to Live Here is a powerful new feature film that not only starts this discussion but also emotionally reveals the cost of such grievous actions. Written and directed by Frank Berry, this important film was inspired by a newspaper article Frank read in June 2011 by Dr Tony Bates called We Must Give Young People a Reason to Live. The article was discussing suicide clusters and the dynamic involved in them, how when a suicide tragedy occurs in a community it can affect other members of the community, how you can have a rise in the number of suicide fatalities in a short space of time.

"It made a lasting impression on me, I felt it needed to be brought out in the open more and I wanted to make a purposeful film about it," says Frank.

"I contacted Tony and he is the founding director of Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health. At first, I thought it would be another documentary but as I did more and more research, I realised that if we made a film that was not associated with any actual tragedy then there wouldn't be the danger of exposing the audience to something painfully real, but through fiction we could do something that would start the conversation."

It was filmed in a small community in Killinarden, Tallaght. There are no professional actors, they are all local people, but they are not playing themselves, they are acting.

"I never thought of having trained actors. I wanted the film to be a collaboration with a community in the way of Ballymun Lullaby [Frank's very successful documentary about a wonderful music teacher in Ballymun], I had such a great experience working with the local community for that.

"I was researching this for a year when I was sent a 20-minute film by Headstrong that had been produced by a community in Tallaght about this very subject. It was their way of trying to make sense of something horrific that had happened to them. I went out to meet them and it was very much one of those pivotal moments.

"There was such shared understanding and passion when I met up with the youth workers in Killinarden. We decided to start softly, I came down to the youth club once a week and started getting to know the young people. At first, they thought I was a trainee youth worker. And then it was the October mid-term and they were scheduling workshops and I offered to do a camera workshop. I was writing the script at this stage, so I started bringing in scenes.

"This is such a sensitive subject, you have to be very careful in how you approach it. I was very aware of my responsibility in this, not to start discussions and then not be there for any questions they might provoke."

Was it a conscious decision that we don't really know the character who triggers everything with his suicide? "Yes, this is about the repercussions, about how the idea can spread. It looks at how when a suicide happens like this, the young people do spend a lot of time talking about it and how that can affect someone who is in their own crisis."

The story centres around a 13-year-old girl Amy (Jordanne Jones) and her relationship with her father Raymond. Her mother died three years ago from illness and Amy is trying to cope with that and the reappearance of her father's ex-girlfriend.

This was all filmed in their own homes, with their own cups and plates, although it is all fictional, so the home Amy/Jordanne lives in, for example, is not her own home and the man playing her father is not her real-life father. "We couldn't have done this without the parents, though, they were on top of all the costumes and maintaining the continuity, and Jordanne's mam even gave us footage of a younger Jordanne talking about her mam."

Crucially, and it is a credit to Frank and all the people involved, this does not feel like a local community project film, it feels like a proper feature film, with very high-quality camera work and soundscape. Is this the beginning of a Hollywood future for any of these young actors?

"Both Jordanne Jones and Dafhyd Flynn have been given acting scholarships to Bow Street Academy for Screen Acting. I think they are huge talents," says Frank. I would have to agree.

Sophie's choice

1 Six world-famous Argentine tango masters will be taking Cork by storm for its annual International Tango Festival next week from April 9-12. This year's line-up topically includes two all-male couples, but they are reviving a century-old tradition of men dancing together while they wait for prostitutes.

2 The wonderful wily witty Samuel Beckett is the hero of a new play by Brian McAvera, In Search of Mr B. Presented by Directions Out Theatre and with a cast including Bryan Murray, this opens with Beckett waking up in the after-life to discover he is challenged by his irresponsible behaviour as a young man.

3 The world premiere of The Man in Two Pieces by Gerard Adlum will take place in Theatre Upstairs on Tuesday evening. Starring Stephen Brennan and Gerard Adlum, this is set somewhere in 1921, some time after midnight when Kerrigan's Vaudeville Troupe stops on the outskirts of some country town.

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